Gino Mazzarella still fondly recalls his first sale.
He had just finished a due diligence presentation in class — such a class can take six hours as each of the students presents their work — when he got a notification on his phone that he’d just sold a pair of iPhone power cables to a buyer in Maryland.
The hard part was sitting still the last four hours, until he could fulfill the order — a tangle-free Noodle cable and a light-up LED cable.
“I was giddy,” said Mazzarella, now a Stevens senior pursuing a Business and Technology major. “I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment to ship the order.”
It seems like a long time ago, especially after a busy Christmas season that left him scrambling to fill orders, but Mazzarella only started his company, Awesome Cables, when he was home for during the 2012 winter break.
“I was bored at home, didn’t have much to do, and getting into small business is something I wanted to do,” he said of his company, which sells iPhone cables of varying lengths and colors — and prices — to consumers around the country who want something other than the three-foot-long, white cables Apple sells for $20 each in its stores.
Mazzarella started out through Alibaba, a Chinese network of e-commerce businesses, where he discovered a network of suppliers that sent him samples of cables. From there, he’s developed a retail operation that he’s aiming to bring entirely under the MFI umbrella — the coveted Made For IPhone designation Apple awards to manufacturers whose products are endorsed by the Cupertino, Calif.-based company. He’s also moving to include products for Android phones, which represent a larger share of the market, on his website.
“The biggest confirmation that I’m on the right track was the holiday season,” Mazzarella said. With a limited advertising budget, he attracted traffic through Google searches, and his attention to SEO led customers to Awesome Cables.
That kind of strategy was honed in his classes at the Stevens, where he learned how to take his business from an idea to a full-fledged company, including lessons in accounting, fulfillment, service and website development.
“Being an entrepreneur, you really have to be jack of all trades,” he said. “Something I’ve learned in the School of Business has been the skills to manage every aspect of that business.”
In particular, he pointed to lessons about accounting and distribution, which gave him an edge early on, as well as Stevens’ technology focus.
A 'technology mindset'
“The fact that the business school is so centered around technology really helped grow my interest in e-commerce,” he said. “Being surrounded by technology all the time made the transition to an online business so much easier — you get so accustomed to the technology mindset.”
It’s another way a Stevens business education stands out, said Dr. Gaurav Sabnis, an assistant professor who’s had Mazzarella in many classes, and describes him as a standout leader and presenter.
One assignment in Sabnis’ Marketing Strategies class had students examine what their friends said about businesses and products on Facebook. Mazzarella went a step further, creating a Facebook ad for his business and focusing his in-class presentation on that.
“He proved that you don’t have to be a big company to successfully advertise there,” Sabnis said.
The experiment paid off, Mazzarella said: “To this day, Facebook has had the best ROI on marketing dollars, which was a huge surprise to me.”
That kind of lesson is at the heart of Sabnis’ classes, which put a strong emphasis on technology.
“The role of technology in marketing is getting much more important than it used to be, whether through Big Data or social media,” Sabnis said. Stevens offers an edge “because our faculty’s research goes beyond the simple questions to find out how these areas can be best used by business.”
Growing the company hasn’t been easy. Mazzarella had to overcome problems in quality control from Chinese suppliers, and has gotten into the odd shouting match with his business partner, a Rutgers University student. But the Freehold native has no plans to slow down: He wants to move tens of thousands of cables through wholesale and build a portfolio of websites beyond just cables.
And there’s still that satisfaction each time he’s notified of a sale.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “Each box you pack is like, ooh, a little bit of money.”
Tips for student entrepreneurs
Stevens is no stranger to student entrepreneurs, but starting a company like Awesome Cables alongside an academic schedule isn’t for the faint of heart. Here are three tips from Mazzarella for aspiring student entrepreneurs:
Be hungry. You have to balance your coursework alongside the heavy demands of running a business. At Awesome Cables, that can include midnight Skype calls with suppliers in Taiwan.
Be as naïve as possible. “Just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you can’t try it,” he said. “If I’m just asking questions and I sound interested, people are willing to talk to me and walk me through stuff.”
Talk to as many people as you can. That can mean meeting professors after class, or just chatting with people in the industry, he said. “You’d be surprised how many emails I get from random wholesalers, and I just give them a call. ‘Hey, how you doing? Let’s chat.’ ”